Few things bring warmth in the doldrums of winter like the arrival of bock beers. These wonderful, deep gold- and copper-colored lagers are like rays of sunshine in February.
Traditionally brewed in fall and drunk in late winter, to celebrate the coming of spring, bock beers are lagers. They're commonly clean and well-balanced, with emphasis on smooth maltiness and caramel flavors. The word "bock" derives from the name of the German city where the style emerged, Einbeck.
Locally, among the earliest to arrive is Uff-da from New Glarus Brewing, a solid, unpretentious example of the style. Minhas Brewery of Monroe makes Berghoff Bock, another respectable bock that is darker in color, with bronze tints and a little lighter flavor than Uff-da. Berghoff is among the best values for the cost of a six-pack.
For those who really enjoy the sweetness of malt, the doppelbock, or double bock, style is something special this time of year. The style is believed to have originated in Bavaria, where monks got by with it during times of fasting. It's thought to have first been brewed in Munich by the monks of St. Francis of Paula. Historically, what the monks drank, in color and sticky caramel flavor, is similar to what we find today.
A perennial doppelbock from Leinenkugel's -- robust and malty, and memorable for its name alone -- is "Big Butt." And a favorite of the early-season brews is Shantytown Doppelbock from Lake Mills' Tyranena Brewing Company. The Shantytown is loaded with lots of caramel flavor and finishes with awesome warmth.
It is still too early to experience the full range of this season's bock beers. But a great way to ease into the next couple of months is attending beer festivals.The downtown Great Dane marks the bock season on Feb. 5 with the release of four different versions of bock. You can get an earlier preview of at least one of them, Velvet Hammer, with a visit to the Great Dane's Fitchburg and Hilldale locations. Velvet Hammer's deep reddish-copper body and smooth maltiness make for an above-average beer in flavor and balance.
But I'm looking forward to the Great Dane's aggressive Dominator Doppelbock, one of the four to be unveiled downtown. If you go, the Great Dane will "bless its bock" around 7:30 that evening in its downstairs rathskeller. It's Fat Tuesday, so expect crawfish and King Cake. A Great Dane key ring will be substituted for the traditional King Cake baby, and whoever finds the ring in their slice gets to tap the first keg of this season's bock beer.
Bockfest at Capital Brewery bockfest will be held Saturday, Feb. 23 at its Middletown home, with the fanfare of local music and a festive beer garden. This annual event marks the release of Kirby Nelson's Blonde Doppelbock. Fans of this beer look forward to its deep golden-copper color, malty sweetness and warm finish. Capital's Maibock, meanwhile, appeared on local shelves over the past couple of weeks.
Capital Bockfest drew nearly 1,800 people last year. No matter what the weather, Nelson, wearing lederhosen, will stand on top of the brewery's roof and throw frozen chubs into the arms of Blonde Doppelbock fans.
"We had a tough time finding chubs this year because of poor harvests in the great lakes," says Nelson. "But we've stashed away a couple of dozen and will be tossing them to the crowd as planned." Those fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to capture an intact fish head can turn it in for a prize.
A event that's a tad more solemn, if a beer festival can be solemn, is Milwaukee's Blessing of the Bock. It customarily features several dozen beers, many of which are southern Wisconsin's the best bocks of the season. Those who attend must wait until a local priest performs the blessing ceremony. Only then do the taps open. It'll be the 20th year for the event, and it's scheduled for May 3, at the Bavarian Inn, 700 West Lexington Blvd. in Glendale.
It is indeed a glorious time of the year for beer enthusiasts. Some of us put the annual arrival of our favorite bock beer as a sign of spring. No offense to weather-prognostication skills of Sun Prairie's Jimmy the Groundhog, but the bocks are more reliable!